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Cultivating the Next Generation of Environmental Stewards at College Hill Learning Garden

Cultivating the Next Generation of Environmental Stewards at College Hill Learning Garden
  • Kathryn Bowman

The College Hill Learning Garden (CHLG), nestled in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood, is a unique educational space for San Francisco youth in grades K-12 to learn about environmental stewardship. 

A student builds a power circuit during a Power in the City field trip.

The only garden in San Francisco that is owned, maintained, and operated by the San Francisco Public Utilites Commission (SFPUC), it includes green and gray infrastructure features and serves as a living classroom that empowers students to advocate for environmental and social change in their community. The CHLG is located on SFPUC property that once housed the College Hill watershed keeper’s house, demonstrating SFPUC’s commitment to repurposing agency land without a primary utility purpose for community use.

At the core of CHLG’s mission is education. It is designed to provide students with hands-on opportunities to directly engage with their environment. For instance, in CHLG’s workshop on the Urban Food System, students garden, cook, and enjoy produce grown onsite. Students become active participants in their environment, allowing educational lessons to resonate more deeply and fostering a connection to place.

The Urban Stewards Program, in collaboration with San Francisco Unified School District, offers a series of field trips and tours at CHLG for the next generation of environmental stewards. The seven sustainability and stewardship principles allow students to discover shared habitats, interact with living creatures, and learn about the human impact on these ecosystems. 

Students paint watercolor plants found at CHLG as they explore and learn about how the plants help keep our planet, watersheds, and our City healthy.

Topics range from Healthy Watersheds to Zero Waste in San Francisco. Field trips are taught in both English and Spanish and center around Big Ideas, a project-based curriculum developed in collaboration with the Center for Ecoliteracy and the SFPUC. In FY 2022-23, CHLG led 74 field trips, reaching 1,777 youth. CHLG uses educational programming to inspire environmental and social change. CHLG offers a field trip series to facilitate continuous engagement over the academic year. 

This sustained involvement reinforces learning outcomes and encourages long-term stewardship. As students' progress through the program, they begin to learn about the interconnectedness of the natural world through a cross-disciplinary lens and a specific focus on environmental justice. These educational workshops promote healthy living and food access throughout San Francisco.

By involving students in the cultivation and consumption of natural resources, such as land, food, water, and power, CHLG fosters a holistic understanding of the interconnectedness of Earth’s systems and nurtures a sense of gratitude and responsibility for our resources. "We choose to celebrate Earth Day today and every day through our continued dedication to stewardship, education, awareness, and the commitment to protecting our planet for the next generations," said College Hill Learning Garden Manager, Metzali Andrade.

Students doing an interactive activity near the garden pond.

The College Hill Learning Garden is a model for public engagement in watershed and environmental education at SFPUC and throughout San Francisco. The very existence of this garden is a celebration of our relationship with the Earth, inspiring the next generation to take the actions needed to achieve sustainable future. As we celebrate Earth Month, let us draw inspiration from CHLG and reaffirm our commitment to protecting and preserving our planet for generations to come.

“Earth day represents the importance of shifting our mindsets so that we start to relate to our resources in a deeper and more regenerative way," said Andrade. “At CHLG, we recognize and engage with San Francisco youth as the current and the future stewards of our City's watersheds, waste systems, energy systems, and shared habitats.”